Back Home

In 1951, in the very same year of his public recognition as an artist, he left America and its “world of crazy rebels” to go in search of the Truth. “That rage, that fury had to become Love,” he said much later, after his conversion. Now Providence, the city of his birth, is welcoming him home with an exhibition


America, 1951. A new generation just emerging from World War II, Hiroshima, and the Holocaust was invading the streets. It was a people made up of young rebels traveling on alcohol and sex, jazz and transgression, in search of itself. Jack Kerouac shut himself up to write On the Road in three weeks, living on Benzedrine and coffee. J.D. Salinger published his The Catcher in the Rye, documenting the terrible loneliness of adolescents.

In New York, a group of young painters broke all the molds and launched a new type of creativity, which was destined to become the first American avant-garde in the history of art. Jackson Pollock found an outlet for his fury by “dripping” paint on gigantic canvases. The jazz culture of the Blacks melded with the rebellion of white youth as personified by Marlon Brando (The Wild One) and brought forth a new, “hip” life-style, outlined by the New York Jewish writer Norman Mailer: “The only hip morality is to do what one feels whenever and wherever possible… . The truth is nothing more and nothing less than what we feel in every instant in the perpetual climax of the present.” Among the artists who embraced the “Action Painting” of the New York School, along with Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, and others, was William Congdon, who in 1948 left his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, imbued with the Puritan New England culture, to move to Manhattan, first to the chaotic area of the Bowery, and then to Park Avenue.

In the schoolbooks
America, 2001. A new generation finds itself at war. The nightmare is no longer the atomic bomb and the possibility of being annihilated in an instant by a Soviet attack, but terrorism which uses passenger airplanes to kill. Kerouac, Salinger, Pollock, and the other rebels of fifty years ago have become part of official American culture, nourishing millions of young people “against” in the Sixties and Seventies, and now part of school textbooks.

They were searching for answers to relentless questions that arose from their hearts and pushed them to find release in carnality or to lose themselves in madness. Kerouac died after getting lost in the fumes of vague Buddhist philosophies, only to find he was always having to come to terms with the unfulfilled promises of his Catholic tradition. The Beat Generation survives only in some faded icons on the West Coast. Salinger lives like a hermit, shrouded in mystery, and has not written anything since his disquieting novel of 1951. Pollock died in 1956 in a car accident that more closely resembled suicide, and has become a Hollywood favorite. Their questions have remained unanswered, cries in the desert incapable of giving any comfort to a nation that stares horror-struck and silent at the crater of Ground Zero.

Congdon, meanwhile, has returned, after decades of absence from his country. Almost no one in America remembers him any more, and his works are quoted at very different prices than are Rothko’s. But in the face of the failure of his rebellious friends of a long time ago, he has disembarked once again in the United States, three years after his death, bringing with him the insight of an Answer.

Many people among the thousands who have visited his exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in Providence, the artist’s first American retrospective since the 1960s, have perceived this. As one walks through the rooms of “William Congdon: My Life has been a Painting,” he senses the emerging of an historic event. The entering visitor cannot fail to be struck by the prophetic image of New York City (Explosion), a picture in which, in long-ago 1949, Congdon represented the city dominated and ripped apart by a horrible black deflagration in the midst of the skyscrapers. The black sun rising over ghostly cities in other paintings of the same period calls forth a similar anguish.

His travels and his voice
Two walls recount the artist’s travels, wandering through the world from Africa to India to Latin America, then to Italy: Venice, Milan, his approach to Gudo Gambaredo–sky and earth; fields and briar patches. Silence is the first sensation that envelops you, in the RISD Museum. Then you hear Congdon’s voice, his stories, coming from a videocassette that broadcasts, in this corner of Protestant Rhode Island, the history of a convert returned from the other side of the sea, no longer in person, but with the fruit of decades spent in search of the Truth.

“This retrospective invites a new evaluation of Congdon’s place in art history,” the influential Boston newspaper The Christian Science Monitor wrote, devoting to the Providence exhibition a review that reveals the fascination of rediscovery of an artist considered “missing” for decades.

In order to understand fully the revolution and provocation of the Congdon of 2001, we must necessarily rewind the tape of history back fifty years and look at the Congdon of then, a man almost 40 years old, marked by the experience of the War in Europe during which, as an ambulance driver, he even took part in the liberation of a concentration camp. The Congdon who, in 1948, rented a room on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side, not far from where today workers are digging through the ruins of the World Trade Center, found himself to be in the epicenter of a cultural earthquake. In 1949, his pictures were hanging in the Betty Parson Gallery, which was, along with Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, the point of reference in that period for an entire generation of “rebels.” Congdon breathed that anger, which you could almost smell in the air of Greenwich Village, mixed with the odor of paint wafting from the studios of the various Pollocks, Stills, Klines, and Rothkos, all working in the area. It was the same anger that was brewing in the East Village among a group of friends at Columbia University, which revolved around the figures of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs and which gave life to the Beat Generation.

Keys or paintbrush
Kerouac used the typewriter with the same vehemence with which Pollock and the other Action Painters (including Congdon) wielded the paintbrush. Rhythm, instinct, and immediate creativity united the Village painters with the Beat writers. Seeing Pollock busy spattering paint with frantic gestures on his enormous canvases is no different from seeing a sweaty Kerouac hammering the keyboard for three weeks without a rest in April 1951, in an apartment on West 21st Street, writing On the Road in one sitting and on one roll of paper dozens of yards long (so as not to have to stop to change the paper in the typewriter).

Congdon lived in and observed this world of madmen which was growing up around him, and tried to submerge himself in it for a while, then abandoned it to its fate when he understood its basic sterility, the “moralism” which dominated all that dead-end rebellion. And right in 1951, the year of his artistic “consecration,” when Life devoted a portrait to him and critics were predicting a great future for him, he began to pull away, and later to disappear. He did the thing that for the American art market–and for America in general–was the most incomprehensible: he made himself invisible, dropping out, in essence, from a world, the art world, that raises visibility to a sine qua non. “Some saw his conversion as an artistic death,” The Christian Science Monitor noted.

He disappeared into far-away Italian monasteries, forgotten by those who fifty years ago were praising him, no longer compared to that group of artists once considered rebels and now pillars of the prevailing American culture. He himself explained why, years later, recalling the years of Action Painting. And his words contain all the meaning of the Providence exhibition and the importance of his return to America: “That rage, that fury had to become Love, which is always at the base of every truth, and therefore of every beauty.”